Donald Trump as an Elite Aspirant


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Yesterday Ned Resnikoff published an article What Ancient History Has To Say About Near-Future Doom, based on interviewing me last week. It’s very well done, but several things I said didn’t make it into his text, and I thought I would expand on them in my blog.

All of this is based on the structural-demographic (SD) theory, which is the best currently available theory to understand why complex societies, including our own, experience periodic waves of social and political instability. For those readers encountering this theory for the first time, check Popular Posts and Series page, on which several blog series explaining the SD theory are collected.

According to the SD theory, instability waves are caused by several interacting forces, of which the two most important are “popular immiseration” and “elite overproduction.” The 2016 presidential elections in the US serve as a perfect illustration of how it works. Let’s look specifically at Donald Trump’s campaign.


“Elite aspirants” in SD theory are politically ambitious individuals who aim to become part of the ruling class. There is nothing wrong with that, except under the conditions of elite overproduction, when there are too many elite aspirants vying for a fixed number of power positions.

One important source of elite aspirants in the US (the second one I covered elsewhere) are people who have acquired a lot of wealth and now aim to convert a portion of it into power and prestige associated with high political office, such as US president, senator, or governor of an important state. The problem is that between 1983 and 2007 the number of American ‘decamillionaires’ (individuals with personal wealth exceeding $10 million) increased from 60 thousand to 460 thousand, and the numbers of “centimillionaires” and billionaires grew similarly. Not every decamillionaire (and above) wants to run for office. Still, there are now seven or eight times as many politically ambitious decamillionaires, as there were 30 years ago, while the supply of political positions has not changed. There is still only one president, 100 senators, and 435 representatives, just as 30 years ago.


This means that a growing number of politically ambitious wealth-holders will be frustrated in their quest for high political office. And many of them are not taking it lying down. The result, putting it within the framework of SD theory, is increased intraelite competition, intraelite fragmentation and conflict.

In this year’s elections we see all of these trends. Trump fits the definition of an elite aspirant as a glove. Furthermore, apparently he first tried to play by the book, but his ambitions were frustrated by the established GOP elites (there was an NYT article about this, which I can’t seem to find).

The Republican Party has been fragmenting since 2010, first with the rise of the Tea Party movement. It’s now cracking up. Now we have three factions, each with its own candidate: Marco Rubio for the establishment, Ted Cruz for the Tea Party, and the insurgent Trump movement.

Trump is only the most visible representative of this segment of elite aspirants. As a today’s Reuters article says:

He’s a successful businessman making his first foray into politics. He wants to secure the southern border with Mexico and dump global trade deals. And like Donald Trump, he wants to be the Republican establishment’s worst nightmare. He’s Paul Nehlen, who has emerged as a Republican rival to Paul Ryan, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, in his home district in Wisconsin.

Elite overproduction provides us with a very useful lense to view the 2016 elections. But elite overproduction is only one part of the story. To understand why Trump is so successful, we also need to look to what is happening with popular immiseration (on which I will post tomorrow).

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Hello, I’m pretty interested in your theory. I read most of your books especially about history. I think that your logic is quite persuasive. I also agree with your analysis on Trump.

I’m wondering if you have any explanation about fertility transition in modern societies. I believe that modern fertility transition is one of the greatest puzzles in social sciences. Boyd and Richardson provided some promising answers based on dual inheritance theory: With higher level of non-parental transmission of cultural traits (just like modern society), more likely that cultural traits don’t promote biological success.

Do you have any theory and hypothesis for fertility transition in modern societies just like your theory for social dynamic?

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